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Margaret Atwood
Author
Tuesday, February 14, 2006; 3:00 PM

"What is writing for? Writers -- unlike dentists, bricklayers and other practical folk -- are always being asked why they do what they do; asked, in effect, to prove their usefulness. It's an odd question, because language and mathematics are the two most potent and useful tools human beings have ever invented.

"Sometimes, as a writer, you forget this. You can get stuck; you can start believing in your own superfluity. As you crumple up the first paragraph yet again and heave it into the wastebasket, you may feel that you're living in a paper house and speaking into a void." ( The Writing Life , Feb. 12)

Award-winning Canadian writer Margaret Atwood , whose essay on teaching creative writing to Inuit women in the Arctic appeared in Sunday's issue of Book World, is online to take questions and comments.

Margaret Atwood's work spans various genres, including poetry, non-fiction, children's books and novels. She is well known for her fiction titles, including "The Handmaid's Tale," "Cat's Eye," and "Edible Woman."

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

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washingtonpost.com: Margaret Atwood will be online momentarily. Thank you for your patience.

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Margaret Atwood: Greetings from Margaret Atwood stuck in traffic in New York City because of the snow.

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Frankfurt, Germany: I think you are one of the world's great writers, but yet you are continually overlooked for the Nobel. And I don't necessarily laud you for your more political works; your more quiet poetry is simply awesome and majestic. Why do you think you have been overlooked thus far, and what advice do you have for aspiring writers? And I mean non-trite advice, real advice, something that you wish someone had told you when you set out, or accidentally fell into, the habit of being an authentic voice represented on a page?

Margaret Atwood: Teaching other people to write is not something I can do. The only kind of advice I can give them will be trite by its nature. Of course, read a lot, write a lot. The kind of advice I wish I had been given is all of a practical nature, having to do with publishers and agents and I do have some of that on my Web page: www.owtoad.com

Thank you for your kind remarks. We don't write in order to win prizes, though they are very nice. So I don't think of it as overlooking. There are great many number of excellent writers in the world and only one prize a year, so of course, some people are not going to get it. Ever. I'm happy that you like my poetry.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Did you find any inspiration or creative ideas for your own writing while teaching?

Margaret Atwood: I enjoyed teaching. I liked the students. Having to formulate my ideas about literature made them clearer. I did not particularly enjoy the more bureaucratic aspects of the job. However, if you are teaching fervently, your energy and time are used up at a great rate. These days, I teach only in small amounts.

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Arlington, Va: Ms. Atwood, it seems like you were working with the Inuit women to improve their literacy and writing facility. In general, do you think creative writing skills can be taught?

Margaret Atwood: You cannot teach somebody to write a masterpiece, but you can certainly teach them how to improve their writing skills. And you can teach them that they can make their own voices more effective by being able to communicate more clearly and forcefully. It makes people feel more capable when they can write -- for instance to make a request-- of a politician -- and when they are able to receive a reply.

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Washington, DC: Many of your books and poems seem to me to have a very strong sense of place and an attachment to Canada. Is being Canadian more than just being not-American, as it's sometimes said? Do the recent elections show that our countries are becoming more similar? Is that a good thing? Is that a good thing for Canadian fiction?

Margaret Atwood: That's a lot of questions! Yes, Canada is a distinct place, quite different from the United States in its history, in its geography, and in its demographic makeup. Its social attitudes are also quite different. And its political system is different as well. It is a bilingual country with two official languages. It has a higher percentage of native people than does the United States. It has a lot more rocks in it. It also has a great many lakes, rivers, streams, bogs, and bodies of water generally.

We have a political party called the Conservative Party of Canada, but most members of it would probably be considered screaming liberals by U.S. standards. Because we have a minority government right now, and four major political parties, the present government cannot do anything without the consent of at least one of the other parties. We do not have a president, we have a prime minister. Our head of state is the governor general. What else is different? The spelling. We can go on. The astrologers would tell that the U.S. is ruled by fire and Canada is ruled by water. Short version: You pep us up, we cool you down.

P.S. We also have a lot more bears than you.

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Burlington, Vt: "Death by Landscape" from "Wilderness Tips" is quite possibly the best short story I have ever read. It so perfectly captures that sense of wonder and distress we have about people who have disappeared so suddenly from our lives. I hesitate to ask this question but, in your mind, does she make it out of the forest alive?

Margaret Atwood: No. In my mind, no. And P.S. there have people who have disappeared in this way and who have never been found.

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San Antonio, Tex.: Your book, The Penelopiad, contains poems recited by the women's chorus. When I read them I was struck by how some of them sounded (to my internal ear) like hip hop. Was that intentional or merely a coincidence of meter? BTW, my book club is reading this particular book and are set to have our review of it this coming Monday.

Margaret Atwood: The skipping song at the beginning is probably the one that sounds like hip hop because hip hop itself sounds like a kind of chanting poetry that pre-existed it and can found in the period just before Shakespeare. Also there's another piece by the chorus to seem to be in prose form but when you say them out loud they have a lot of rhyme. So short answer: Not hip hop as such, but hip hop itself resembles other kinds of poetry. P.S. I'm pleased your book club is reading this book.

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Nunavut, Canada: Hi Editor and Margaret, this is Bernadette Dean, coordinator of Somebody's Daughter with Sheree Fitch both of us are at the Winnipeg airport, will you let Margaret know that we are online. Thanks

Margaret Atwood: Hi Bernie, Hi Sheree, really glad to hear from you. Bernie, congratulations on your granddaughter. That's terrific. I can just picture the two of you having a really great time. For our readers -- Bernie and Sheree were with me at the Inuit camp called Somebody's Daughter last summer and it was a profound experience for us all.

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Washington, D.C.: For a country with a reasonably small population, hasn't Canada produced a remarkable number of world-class novelists? Whose work do you most admire? And what is it about Canada that you think makes for such creativity?

Margaret Atwood: The nights in winter are long. The weather is cold. This means people frequently stay indoors. When people in my generation started to write, we did not actually have much of a movie industry, much of a theater scene, much of a television industry or other creative outlets. But we had a lot of aspiring writers. All that has changed. We now have a movie industry, television industry and lots of theater. But we have retained a large contingent of writers and a dedicated readership.

The larger number of people in society who value writing, the larger number of good writers will be produced. That's my belief. It raises the bar.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have a take about the connection between sewing and writing? I have been in arguments with women who feel it is degrading and detrimental to women to express themselves in their sewing - apparently sewing is looked down upon as a non-intellectual or empowering pursuit. I don't think this is a valid argument - expression is always empowering, no matter what the medium.

Margaret Atwood: As you can tell by my article, I don't find the idea of sewing degrading. A thing is degrading when you are forced to do it, through economic reasons or through slavery or some other form of compulsion. The women at the Somebody's Daughter camp wanted to learn this kind of sweing -- it connected them with their roots and gave them a skil they valued.

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Nunavut, Canada: Margaret, we just want to let you know you that the article about Somebody's Daughter is excellent, and it's exciting to see it on the Post, Sheree brought me a copies. I met women from American Samoa last week in Albuquerqu, NM and they are interested in a Somebody's Daughter program for women in American Samoa. Thank you for being a great messenger and teacher.

Margaret Atwood: Hello Bernie -- I think this is you. I'm pleased you enjoyed the article! I hope you will show it to the women who were there with us. The idea of a Somebody's Daughter in Samoa is electrifying -- I wonder what they will teach! And thank you as well, Bernie --

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Baltimore, Md: I loved your book Alias Grace. How did you approach the research for that? How long did it take to complete and revise? Also, how did you become involve with Somebody's Daughter?

Margaret Atwood: Alias Grace -- The research was quite involved, as Alias Grace is based on real events and real people. I felt I could not change any actual events. Yet the accounts of these events that were written at the time -- in the 1840s -- often contradicted one another -- as news reports do today. We looked everywhere we could think of -- the records of the Toronto Lunatic Asylum and of Kingston Penitentiary, old newspapers, trial records -- really everywhere. We even tracked down the early life of one of the murder victims -- through Scotland. I had a research assistant who helped me, and in Scotland it was a friend. It was like an Easter egg hunt -- I found it exciting. Even after the book was published, bits kept turning up.

I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.

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Washington DC: Ms. Atwood, The Blind Assassin is one of the most beautiful books I ever read. I had to force myself to go out in Paris though I would've been quite content to order room service and read all night long. You are truly talented and I love your poetry as well. Are you saddened when you finish a work? How involved do you have to become with your characters to create such depth on the page? And how do you withdraw from that to life your daily life?

Margaret Atwood: Thank you! I'm going to post a response to you from Nunavut -- It is right about weaving the best basket you can weave.

Yes, am am rather saddened at the end of a book. I think most writers find this. It's like a friend departing on a voyage ....

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Nunavut, Canada: If I can add to respond to Washing DC, there is a dialogue between Buddha and his apprentice, where the apprentice asks Buddha how to master the art of meditation, Buddha's reply is to weave the best basket you can weave...

Margaret Atwood: Thank you ...

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Munich, Germany: Is it true that you once spent a bit of time in Berlin? How does a European experience help to add perspective to your view of Canadian and native Indian cultures and conflicts?

P.S. I've been wanting to travel with the Polar Bear Express up to Moosonee for years. Have you got any tips on how we should deal with the mosquitoes and polar bears?

Margaret Atwood: Hello Munich: Yes -- I go to Berlin for most novels that appear in German -- but we lived there in 1984, when the Wall was still up, and it was there I began to write The Handmaid's Tale (on a rented typewriter with a German keyboard!) The museums there are terrific -- and they have many works of art from North America.

We often value things when we are far away from them. Sometimes we see them more clearly.

As for the polar bears and mosquitoes -- listen to the advice you will be given by those with experience -- re: bears. They can run very fast and are not afraid of you. The mosquitoes and blackflies -- mosquitoes are annoying but blackflies are actually more of a risk. Use common sense, cover wrists, tuck in your socks, wear a bandanna and a hat, and -- if you feel you need it -- a repellant. But at many times of year there are not big clouds of mosquitoes and black flies. If you are sensible you will be fine.

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Haymarket, Va: What kind of things did you and your co-teachers present to the Somebody's Daughter participants?

Margaret Atwood: I'm posting this in the hope that Sheree Fitch is still online -- our main challenge at first was overcoming shyness and lack of confidence. It helped that there were two writing teachers (not one), as neither of us was The Teacher that way -- and we could come up with different ideas.

Among the things we did -- we helped write letters to politicians, local and national, telling them of problems people had in their daily lives.

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Bainbridge Island, Wash: Hello Margaret,I am interested in knowing what you learned from these women? They live between two worlds, a special place between the old and new, and I'm imagining that they may have a kind of wisdom that many of us would treasure. Ed

Margaret Atwood: I learned many things from many different kinds of women. Some of them were Elders -- they had grown up in the old way, in tents and igloos -- a live-off-the-land, hunting and fishing culture. They had a lot of practical knowledge, many stories, and an amazing perspective.

From the group as a whole -- what is valued -- helpfulness, sharing of emotions, a basic faith, the belief that things can be made better if people work together. Selfishness is frowned on. People also had a wonderful sense of humor, which I appreciated a lot.

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Arlington, Va: Are you still in touch with any of the women you worked with thru Somebody's Daughter? Have you had any updates on how this program has had an impact on their daily lives?

Margaret Atwood: I'm posting this in the hope that Bernadette Dean -- who co-ordinates the program -- is still on line. Bernie says that the program has a really positive impact -- it restores confidence and a sense of wholeness to people whose lives have often been shattered in various ways.

I'm in touch through Bernie, who lives in Rankin Inlet (see map) and is in touch with everyone, I think!

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NunaScotia, Canada: Bernie typing and Sheree talking, having been there by myself, I was relieved to have another teacher. And imagine Margaret Atwood! For me, as teachers the first job is to create a safe place so authentic voices come forth from the women.

Margaret Atwood: Posting this from Bernie and Sheree -- Sheree and I were co-teachers. I hope you guys don't miss your plane!

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Haymarket, Va.: I am really touched by the Somebody's Daughter Program. Will helping women around the world find their voices bring us closer to world peace?

Margaret Atwood: I certainly hope so. The women in the program were very aware of their connectedness -- to their families, and to other women around the world. Woman in general want their children to grow up safe from harm. The Grameen Bank programme (microeconomics) -- started in Bangladesh -- is also a programme that gives women more power. Learning to write her name is something the woman has to do in order to join.

Trees grow from the ground up, not from the sky down.

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Margaret Atwood: Dear Readers:

Alas, we are out of time. I read all of your postings but had way too little time to answer them all -- thank you for your thoughtful questions and for joining this on-line chat.

With very best wishes,

Margaret Atwood.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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